EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was written by the MDJ’s late editorial page columnist, Joe Kirby. It has since become a tradition to publish it on Thanksgiving.
We Americans are gathering today with family and loved ones to celebrate “the First Thanksgiving.”
Yes, we’ll be gathering, alright, and gobbling our weight in turkey and trimmings. And though our thanks and gratitude are sincere, most of us are all wrong as to the time, place, characters, menu and other circumstances of the occasion we are honoring. That’s because, contrary to the myth pounded into the head of every elementary schooler, the First Thanksgiving featured no Pilgrims, no Indians and no Plymouth. No Miles Standish, no Squanto, no Massasoit.
The first Thanksgiving ceremony in North America took place not in Plymouth in 1621, but near Jamestown, Va., on Dec. 4, 1619. Being a native Virginian, as I am, such distinctions are of vital significance.
Virginia’s event was not a celebration, but a true thanksgiving service held by 38 English settlers who had just survived a perilous winter passage across the stormy Atlantic in a small sailing ship.
Most Americans, it’s fair to say, think the first English settlement in North America was at Plymouth. Wrong again. The first permanent settlement was Jamestown, founded in 1607 — more than a decade before the Pilgrims got around to heading this way.
Why the confusion about who thanked first? The Pilgrims, with their silly hats, clunky-looking buckled shoes and exaggerated Thanksgiving tale, made for an easier story to sell to the public, especially children. Was there also a bit of Yankee chauvinism and anti-Southern bias in the downplaying of the Jamestown saga? Probably, in that a number of the country’s most prominent early historians and writers were from New England. That region also was the heartland of abolitionism — and the first slaves introduced in this country arrived via Jamestown.
By the time President Lincoln formalized the Thanksgiving holiday (which he set for early December) during some of the darkest days of the Civil War, the Jamestown Thanksgiving service had been all but forgotten.
Later, President Franklin Roosevelt — hoping to extend the holiday shopping period and perk up the Depression-era economy — moved up the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November. (No one back then could have foreseen a time when the start of the holiday shopping season coincided with the week before Halloween. Before long, the Christmas shopping season will be starting on the Monday after Labor Day.)
But we digress.
Did those at the first Thanksgiving service (the Virginia one!) chow down on basted turkey, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce? Not likely. There probably wasn’t any turducken on the menu, either. There might have been a little food left after the colonists’ trans-oceanic voyage and a few years of subsistence farming, but whatever it was, you can be sure it was unappetizing (to our highly selective modern palates) and was in short supply. (Death via starvation was a constant theme in Jamestown’s early years.)
The Plymouth event, on the other hand, was the continent’s first all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. That’s how the story goes, anyway. They did have turkey at Plymouth’s Thanksgiving, didn’t they?
Wrong yet again. Archaeologists who have dug through Plymouth’s remains say there is no evidence (that is, turkey bones) of such birds having been consumed there until well after 1621, according to University of Virginia professor and archaeologist Jim Deetz.
If they didn’t have turkey, what did they munch on? The 50 or so Pilgrims and their 90 Indian guests likely scarfed down bread, corn, deer, fish, rabbit, squirrel and ... eel. Yes, eel, says Deetz.
Eel was a dietary staple at that point in the Plymouth settlement. (No wonder the Pilgrims were such Puritans and so cranky.) The English-speaking Indian Squanto had earlier shown the settlers how to squish eels out of the mud with their bare feet. (It’s fair to say that bare feet had nothing to do with the preparation of what’s on the menu at today’s Kirby gathering — and I hope you can say the same.)
So the Pilgrims didn’t have turkey and weren’t the first to hold a Thanksgiving. Is there anything their defenders can brag about?
Yes, there is: The Pilgrims’ feast probably featured copious amounts of beer, Deetz says. Good thing Thanksgiving fell on Thursday, not Sunday.
I don’t think the First Thanksgiving fable would have had the “legs” that it’s had if celebrating Thanksgiving meant having to gorge on eels and beer. But maybe all that beer in 1621 explains how that cock-and-bull story about turkey and the Pilgrims being first got started in the first place.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!